Conservation awareness

Bay buffers: Farmers need more information if streamside program is to succeed.

November 17, 1999

THERE'S a great idea behind the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program: using farmland conservation to protect 100,000 acres of Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

But how will Maryland officials persuade farmers to take their cropland out of production and plant streamside buffers to control soil erosion and nutrient-rich farm runoff pollution? They'll need more money and a much more persuasive campaign for the program. And, as any farmer knows, the program also needs sufficient time to yield a good harvest.

Maryland officials worry that the state will barely reach 40 percent of its conservation goal by 2002, despite $200 million in federal, state and private funds to promote the program.

That seems like enough money, but it's all tagged for direct payments to farmers. Nothing is set aside for promotion and explanation.

Farmers complain that there are too many rules, too many organizations involved to make the program understandable and attractive. Only 13,000 acres have been enrolled.

Other states in the program have done a better job of marketing it to landowners, mobilizing agricultural agents and conservation groups to spread the word. To be fair, Maryland was the first state to undertake the program, so others could learn from its experience.

But it's time for this state to catch up, to expand the program promotion with state funds and some of the $5.5 million committed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Ducks Unlimited Inc.

Farmers in targeted watersheds get money for taking land out of production for 15 years and for installing conservation measures such as restoring wetlands, planting grasses or hedgerows. In nearly all cases, the farmer is fully reimbursed.

Benefits from this program are not only cleaner water for the bay, but reduced loss of nutrients from cropland and more abundant wildfowl along the buffers. (Is it any wonder that Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever are backing the plan?)

That should make it a win-win-win proposition. Maryland shouldn't allow itself to lose out.

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